6 APRIL 1991, Page 40


On the level

Martyn Harris

How many times has John Major actu- ally said 'Oh yes, oh yes'? About twice, I would think, and yet already it means him as irrevocably as 'silly billy' means Denis Healey or 'boyo' means Neil Kinnock, even though they never uttered the phrases at all.

Mrs Thatcher never acquired a catch- phrase (unless you count 'We are a grand- mother'), probably because her whole per- sonality is so baroque that impressionists and parodists didn't need one. The duller you are as a public figure the harder you will be examined for any oddity which can be used to pin you down — which means Mr Major is being scrutinised very hard indeed.

In his interview with Sue Lawley (ITV, 7 p.m., Monday) the Prime Minister was struggling hard with the ordinary human desires to yawn, fidget, scratch his nose and cross his legs. They can all be innocent ges- tures, but television amplifies the tiniest tic and suffuses it with sinister import. To the TV body coach, taking your eyes off the interviewer means, 'I'm bored stupid'; to cover your mouth with your hand means, 'I am hiding something'; to pull at your ear- lobe spells, 'I've heard enough of this crap'; to cross your legs means, `I'm defensive'; and to stroke your nose means, 'I'm lying through my teeth'.

Mr Major stroked his nose when Lawley asked if his family were happy about him becoming Prime Minister, and he said that they were. When charged with being colourless, he crossed his legs, revealing three inches of slate-grey shin. 'I am not publicly flamboyant,' he said, 'I think flam- boyance is best left for private occasions.' And one was left to picture Mr Major shav- ing flamboyantly, and flamboyantly knot- ting his shoe-laces. When Lawley demanded what his convictions were he lunged for the mixed metaphors. 'I'm not going to beat my chest and paint myself into a corner.'

His body language became most agitated when Lawley asked about the vexed matter of his academic qualifications. He rubbed his nose, covered his mouth, pulled his ear, crossed and uncrossed his legs.1 don't even think I had taken 0 levels when I left school. I mean A levels. I can't remember at the time if I did or not. I did after I left — rather more than I am publicly credited with now. To tell you the truth I can't remember. It was six, seven, eight 0 levels, something like that. To be frank I can't remember.'

Now this is odd, because nobody forgets how many 0 levels they have, least of all someone who has slogged through corre- spondence courses to get them, like Mr Maior. I would guess that at some point in the past he has fudged the details of his exam results in a CV or application form, and now feels guilty about it, which is why he burbles such a lot about the university of life and the importance of common sense over paper qualifications. It doesn't matter, except that it makes him even more endearing, but perhaps he should set things straight soon before some parodist or impressionist or Spitting Image scriptwriter turns him forever into John 'No Levels' Major.

Omnibus (BBC 1, 10.10 p.m., Friday) was another episode in the current campaign to refurbish the Tom Jones image for the 1990s. It was a question, as the singer's son and manager put it, 'of shifting the focus about three feet upwards'.

The amiable Welsh undresser is nowhere near as thick as he looks — you can't be if you last 25 years at the top, and preserve a marriage that you embarked on at the age of 16. He has had good songs, good man- agement and good lawyers — for this was one of those shows where you could read the pre-production contracts through the thinness of the material. Tom will not talk about his marriage. Tom's wife will not appear. You will not interview any woman associated with Tom. Programme approval will rest with Tom Jones Inc. When Mr Major is as media-wise and as powerful as Tom Jones, perhaps he too will get con- tracts like that.